May 29, 2013

Reflect atheists in a more positive light

My new column for USA Today asks people to tell another story about atheists. Check out the excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.

Last week atheists were all over the news and social media. But in a world that frequently focuses on conflict, it seemed like we were hearing a different -- and, to many, surprising -- story about atheists.

Last Tuesday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Rebecca Vitsmun, asking her if she "thank(ed) the Lord" for the fact that she lived through a disastrous tornado in Oklahoma. Holding her infant child in her arms, she replied, "I'm actually an atheist." And then she added: "You know, I don't blame anybody for thanking the Lord."

In a couple of short sentences, Vitsmun delivered two equally powerful messages: that she was not embarrassed by her atheism, and that she respected her religious friends and neighbors. Blitzer's question represented a common assumption that most people believe in God. It was an indicator of widespread religious privilege in our culture, and Vitsmun challenged it in a way that also humanized atheists.

The clip went viral and quickly became one of the most-discussed stories to emerge from the Oklahoma disaster coverage. All the while atheists, along with Muslims and many others, were at the forefront of recovery efforts.

That same day Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez made headlines when the Democrat offered a rousing, moving atheist reflection during the time prayers are typically offered prior to the Arizona House of Representatives' afternoon session, invoking the words of the late astronomer, author and agnostic, Carl Sagan: "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

The next day Pope Francis surprised many by offering a defense of atheists, saying that atheists can do good -- and that religious people and atheists can "meet one another" by doing good together.

What was most remarkable about these three incidents wasn't simply that each was about atheists, or that they made headlines. Rather it was that they showed atheists in a positive light. They demonstrated the reality that most atheists are kind, moral individuals.

This seemingly simple fact shouldn't be notable, but it is.

Click here to continue reading.